APRIL, 1949

No. 311



ON the 29th April, Sir Thomas Beecham will celebrate his seventieth birthday. It should be a national occasion. In France i t would be. There they know how to make a gesture to a great artist. Here we ha·dly realise a prophet is amongst us until he is dead. But i t is gratifying that the Gramophone Company will celebrate the occasion with a special issue of records. Sir Thomas has given great service to the gramophone since he first recorded for Columbia in now far off preelectric days. ·His integrity in recording studios is well known, no one takes more pains than he that his records should be as flawless as possible. His early recording days coincided with a period when his brilliancy was such that many were bewildered and unable to decide whether he was a heaven-sent genius or a flashy charlatan. Then there was a whimsicality in his character, conducting an opera so divinely one night that one would immediately rush off to hear i t when i t was again performed only to find that on this occasion Sir Thomas had decided to take i t at such a pace as left the singers gasping and almost unable to articulate. That belongs to the past. He has certainly made musical history and some of his performances will be talked of as long as music lovers of this generation are living and the records of his conducting survive. Such heights were reached in his conducting 0 f the Messiah and of the Schubert great C major, the finest of all classical symphonies. And such heights were usually achieved in Mozart, Haydn and Delius. There is always the element of surprise with him. You are about to hear for perhaps the twentieth t ime some work which you feel has nothing more to give you and you settle back in your chair apprehensive of boredom. Then Beecham steps on the rostrum, there is a tap of the Mton and the music begins. Immediately you sit up, you are raised to the seventh heaven of delight and when you leave the concert hall i t is with the feeling that on that night you had really heard the music for the first t ime; so fresh, so lovely and cIear has i t all sounded. When he conducts, his orchestra give the impression that the best of the foreign orchestras give -that the players are on their mettle and giving of their best. The chief trait that differentiates his conducting from that of othen is his abnormal sensibility to tone.

"With Beecham," says that acute critic, Frank Howes, " sheer saturation of sound, a unique iridescence of colour and an all enveloping lyricism of quality are the first essentials of an orchestra . . . By sheer sensuousness of tone he makes Delius comprehensible." His beat is firm and precise, at one t ime there was a hint of the showman in his platform manner, the years have sobered this. He is one of the few great conductors. When the mood is on him I would rather have him conduct than anyone else. He is still a young man, still retaining that rather dapper appearance, the suggestion of dandyism which one associated with his earlier years. He has been the stormy petrel of many disputes; in many of these I cannot help but think that he was on the side of the angels. His wit is known and feared.

His recording work throughout has been on such a consistently high level that i t is difficult indeed to praise or recommend some at the expense of others. His Haydn, Mozart and Berlioz recordings are all exceptional. And of course Delius. And I think of Strauss's Heldenleben, Bax's Garden of Fand, Debussy's symphonic suite Printemps . . . but one could go on. The one great disappointment has been A Village Romeo and Juliet issued last Autumn. Did something go wrong with the technical side of the recording? This is indeed a major calamity for we are not likely to get another recording of this supremely beautiful music. And shall we ever in England be able to get the masterly recording he made of the Messiah for the Victor Company of America? In this Beecham made experiments which I am told proved most successful.

This strange, fantastic and bewildering creature once described himself as a perfect child: one who never spoke and never cried: "a model of taciturnity and gentle melanchol}, and altogether an embryonic hero for a Bulwer-Lytton novel." It worried his mother, she often considered the advisability of special medical advice. In her blood, far back, was a strain of French and Spanish, otherwise his forbears were undiluted English. His grandfather founded the Beecham business. A chemist, with a hard business head, he was yet a charming eccentric: his passion was astrology and his delight to cast horoscopes. But there is no record of his casting his grandson's horoscope, he grandson who made one woman ~poser muse on Halley's comet .. that mysterious heavenly visitant with a glorious tail . . • a sort of Flying Dutchman of the skies." The Beecham factory was at St. Helen's, their large country house, Ewansville, stood in ten acres of grounds at Huyton, a village six miles from St. Helen's and Liverpool. Beecham's father, Sir Joseph, was also somewhat of an eccentric. His fanaticism was for music and musical instruments, he collected musical instruments with ardour and the house was a museum of them. There were musical boxes of every description, some disguised as domestic furniture or even hat pegs, so that a visitor could not sit on a chair or place his hat on a rack without a tinkling response of some old and charming German or Swiss folk song. .. To have them baek again," Sir Thomas wrote in his autobiography, .. I would cheerfully throw into the sea or on the dust heap most of the triumphs of modern invention which claim to be truthworthier instruments of reproduction." In different rooms were three organs, but in the music room was the masterpiece, an orchestrion, a gigantic piece of mechanism which reproduced the sound and (he effect of an orchestra of some forty or forty-five players and which performed symphonies by Mozart and Beethovt;n and selections from the operas of Rossini, Verdi and Wagner. It fascinated Sir Thomas